Part 9: Oliver and Brian meet their first angel
But the satchel was gone and the rocks were conspicuously positioned in a square formation, like the chalk-line of a dead body. Someone or something with opposable thumbs had carefully lifted the rocks off the satchel and moved them aside. There was no other way the satchel could have disappeared without the lads hearing anything.
“It was the sausage roll man,” Brian said, staring at the empty space between the rocks.
“At least we’ll know him when we find him,” Oliver said.
“Filthy bastard,” Brian spat. “Now what are we going to eat?”
“Don’t know,” Oliver muttered, still thinking about the crime. “It’s strange though…”
“Fuck, here we go,” Brian groaned. “Everything’s strange Oliver, it’s the afterlife not an episode of Law and Order. I dunno why you’re always trying to make sense of everything. Someone’s nicked our food, it’s a fucking bummer but it’s not particularly strange. So we gotta move on and try to deal with the problem, not stand around scratching our bloody arses.”
Oliver could not be swayed. “Just hear me out. Rolf said there was no crime in purgatory because all the really bad eggs were sent elsewhere. Yet here we are with a stolen satchel: a pretty rotten crime when you consider that the thief has left us to starve.”
“So?” Brian tapped his foot impatiently.
“So - based on what Rolf said, and the gutless characters we met in the casino, don’t you find it odd that someone in purgatory had the cold heart and the balls to steal our prize possession from under our noses.”
Brian took a moment to consider the logic. “Yup, I see what you’re saying. Meek, law-abiding people – what are they doing stealing bags? It’s strange.”
Oliver regarded him disapprovingly, picking the insincerity in his voice. “You don’t find it strange at all.”
“Damn it!” Brian cursed, his stomach rumbling. “Okay, I still don’t find it strange. Actually, you wanna know who’d steal that satchel from under our noses? I would. If I was out here by myself, lost, and hungry, I’d grab someone’s food and convince myself that I needed it more than they did. Shit, we virtually robbed Robbie the barkeep back at the casino and we live in purgatory, don’t we? There was nothing strange about that.”
Oliver frowned, not appreciating the argument Brian had thrown back at him. He didn’t like it because it sounded perfectly logical even though he knew in his gut that it was wrong.
“Okay, I take your point,” he conceded.
“So we can concentrate on getting food now?”
“Thank you. Alright, where do we start?”
“The river,” Oliver suggested. “It might be deep enough for fish now.”
“To the river,” Brian concurred.
“It’s weird though, the river.”
“Don’t mess with me when I’m hungry, Ollie.”
They’d been knee deep in water for nearly an hour and Oliver was convinced that there was nothing in the river but rocks, water and moss.
Brian reckoned he saw a silvery fish dart downstream when they’d first approached the river’s edge but Oliver suspected it was wishful thinking on the big guy’s part. Brian was on the verge of seeing cheeseburgers swinging from the trees and couldn’t be relied upon while his stomach was empty.
“Give up?” Oliver asked.
“A few more minutes,” Brian said, his eyes developing the glazed look of a round-the-clock porn addict.
“You said that more than a few minutes ago.”
“There’s food here,” Brian said simply. His hands were poised over the water’s surface, ready to pounce on the next fish that swam by.
Oliver shook his head and turned away, resolving to be more forceful about moving on the next time he spoke. He was hungry too; perhaps not as ravenous as Brian but certainly ready to devour a raw fish without worrying about the art of filleting.
His thoughts, however, remained distracted by the near-conflict in the casino and the theft of the food satchel. The longer he spent in purgatory, the more Oliver thought it was a jigsaw puzzle to piece together; not an abstract painting that you accepted as hopelessly bizarre. In particular, Oliver was encouraged that there were no absolutes: it was assumed that there were no women in purgatory but there were in fact some; and Rolf had described the inhabitants as passive, law-abiding folk even though there were clearly thieves afoot.
If there were no absolutes, Oliver pondered, then perhaps purgatory wasn’t an eternal prison after all. Perhaps there were cracks around the edges for likely lads to exploit.
His train of thought was cut short by a white light that winked in the corner of his eye. Oliver whipped around, frantically scanning the riverbank and the surrounding trees for the source of the flash.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
“A white……oh fuck…..”
Since discovering he was dead, Oliver thought he’d handled the transition to the afterlife rather well (notwithstanding his initial collapse). He hadn’t allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the enormity of what he’d learnt in the past few days and he was proud of how quickly he’d adjusted to his new surroundings.
Thus far, however, Oliver hadn’t encountered anything that had seriously tested his perception of reality. The laws of physics were intact, he hadn’t encountered any green men or talking rabbits, and aside from the sudden age-loss and some oddly coloured grass, there’d been nothing particularly supernatural about purgatory. It was more of a surreal adventure than a wild fantasy.
That all changed when he saw his first angel.
Oliver’s jaw continued to drop as he watched the pale figure walk towards the river and pause at the water’s edge. The angel wore a tattered white robe that hung down to his bare feet, making him look like a shepherd rather than a divine being. In most respects he looked like a regular Joe: long, ratty hair that curled up the back, a prickly three-day growth, a pasty complexion and a healthy paunch. Certainly nothing like the beautiful, willowy angels from stained glass windows and Christmas cards.
What distinguished the figure from any other vagrant in a bath-robe was the white light that radiated from his body, like a personal force-field. The glow was soothing to the eye and as soon as Oliver glimpsed the angel’s aura, he was mesmerised.
“Come on,” the angel snapped, sounding remarkably like Jeremy Paxton. “Get out of there, the game’s up.”
“Bugger me,” said Brian when he turned to face the angel.
“No thanks – not allowed,” the angle replied flatly. “Come on, get out of the river. I won’t ask you again.”
Oliver and Brian, both hypnotised by the angel’s white light, obediently waded out of the river.
“All the way out,” the angel instructed. When the lads were standing on dry land, the angel’s expression hardened from tired indifference to annoyed. He leant towards them, sniffed, then groaned with frustration.
“We were going to wash after breakfast,” Brian protested.
The angel shook his head. “No, that’s not it,” he said with disgust. “Damn it.”
“Who were you looking for?” Oliver asked.
The angel regarded him with the jaded patience of a high school music teacher. “Sorry, I made a mistake. Forget you ever saw me.”
“As if,” said Brian, circling the angel and studying his back. “Hey, where are your wings?”
“Good question,” said the angel, “I must’ve left them at the coffee shop again. Better get over there before someone steals them.”
He turned to leave but Brian and Oliver rushed in front of him, blocking his path.
“Don’t go yet,” Oliver pleaded. “Tell us who you were looking for.”
“Were you serious about the wings?” Brian wanted to know. “Are they detachable?”
The angel rolled his eyes. “You’re not even supposed to know I exist. If I tell you who I was looking for, or why I don’t have pretty wings, I’ll be that much harder to forget.”
“Too late,” said Oliver. “It’s not like we’re going to forget the first time we saw an angel.”
“Who says I’m an angel?”
“We do,” Oliver and Brian rejoined.
A sliver of anxiety passed over the angel’s face but he recovered quickly. “No-one will believe you anyway. Goodbye.”
The angel had taken a few steps up the riverbank when Brian blurted, “We’ve got whiskey!” in a last ditch effort to stall him.
The angel paused, menacingly, and Oliver wondered what the penalty was for attempting to bribe an angel. He was preparing to defend Brian with the excuse “he’s only a New Zealander,” when the angel turned around with a half-cocked smile.
“Dead serious,” Brian smiled, theatrically pulling a hip flask from under his belt and waggling it enticingly.
“Were you going to tell me about that?” Oliver asked pointedly.
“I forgot it was there! It was my emergency supply.”
“So the answer is no.”
“No….I mean yes I was going to tell you.”
“Ahem,” said the angel, suddenly right in front of them. “I might be convinced to answer a question or two if you’ll give me that bottle.”
“No way,” Brian said, putting the bottle behind his back. He was testing the theory that angel’s were messengers of God and were incapable of violence or dishonesty. “If you want a drink, you’ll have to drink with us.”
The angel glared at Brian, attempting to stare him down. When he realised he was getting nowhere, his shoulders slumped and he held out his hand.
“Okay, deal. But I get the first slug.”